Tickle Me Ivory
March 10, 2010 6:06 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to master scales, chords, and chord progressions on the piano / keyboard. More specifically, help me create harmony and melody. My husband and I are starting to create music on our computer. I think I have a pretty good ear for what sounds good, but I feel like a complete hack on the keyboard. I would like to become proficient at hitting keys that sound well together or next to each other. I am studying basic theory, but where does the rubber meet the road? Is it simply muscle memory? I am not really interested in playing a piece of sheet music, but if that will help, I will learn. I just want to create my own music. I know I have to practice, but practice doing what? I would be rather proud of myself if someone told me drop and play I V vi IV in F Major and I could do it without thinking.
posted by trinigirl to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you should pick up Mark Levine's Jazz Piano book and then pick up some Fake Books and then practice improvisation.

Thats how I learned. I can improvise but still struggle to actually read sheet music.
posted by vacapinta at 6:18 AM on March 10, 2010

Can you identify chord progressions by ear yet? If not, practice that when you're listening to the radio. Check your work by looking up the songs on YouTube and playing along. (Or check out internet chord/tab sites, although those are frequently wrong.)
posted by equalpants at 6:52 AM on March 10, 2010

I asked a similar question in MeFi Music a while back, and there were some good suggestions in that thread: http://music.metafilter.com/4051/SongwritingComposition-for-Practical-People
posted by usonian at 6:54 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go to your local music store. Mine has a small booklet (last time I saw it it was about a dollar or so) and it has piano chords, with keys listed, plus the basic chords for each key.

Of course, studying music theory will be immense help for you but if you know that a C scale has C, F and G for the main chords you can get started playing simple stuff and let your ear help you with the rest.

BTW, how I learned was simply learning to read chords on piano (just as if it were a guitar) and I actually studied the theory years later. You will need to know how to add a 7th to a chord, and other stuff like that-but again, your music store should have something to help you with that.

Oh, and feel free to PM me if you get stuck on something and have questions. I do what you want to do and it is awesome to be able to do it. I also have a couple of theory classes under my belt as well.

Another thing-you ask WHAT to practice. One thing to do (besides learn your chords in all three positions) is simply sit at the piano and doodle. Play. Try to imitate songs you have heard. Experiment. This will train your ear and your hands.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:58 AM on March 10, 2010

I'm a guitarist who can find his way around on a piano a little bit, and I'd say spend some time getting your muscle memory going on triads. Pick a note, add the major 3rd (four half-steps up), then add the 5th (3 half-steps up from there). Easy peasy, major chords. Learn them for every note. From there just drop the 3rd a half step to get the minor chords. Then work on the inversions -- raise the root an octave for each one and that's the 1st inversion. Raise the 3rd an octave too, and that's the 2nd inversion. At that point you'll have a pretty good idea of where the basic chords are and should be able to pound out simple chord progressions like I V vi IV in any key without too much thought, based on where the root, 3rd and 5th are of your starting chord. vi is the minor triad based on the 6th (a whole step up from the 5th of the first chord), IV is the major triad based on the 4th (a whole step below the original 5th). You'll also have a good foundation for more complex chords.

That's probably all kinds of improper, but it works pretty well for me, having never taken a piano lesson in my life. It covers more of the harmony part of your question. Melody is a little more elusive for me on a keyboard. My habit is to use my voice to establish melodies, the keyboard for the accompanying harmonies, and then pick out the melodic content on the keyboard as necessary based on that.
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:59 AM on March 10, 2010

I would be rather proud of myself if someone told me drop and play I V vi IV in F Major and I could do it without thinking.

I wouldn't say it's exactly muscle memory, but I learned how to do that simply by doing it over and over again in different keys. After a while, I started to get a feel for which chords work well with which other chords and now it doesn't take much thought. I don't read sheet music very quickly, so I intially figured out most of the chords by learning scales and then counting up the notes in those scales.

I've found it's more fun to practice playing chord patterns with different base notes. Maybe that's not the right terminology, but I mean that I in F Major is not only F-A-C, but also A-C-F and C-F-A. For me, that makes it a little less tedious practicing the patterns because it can be a bit different every time.
posted by scottreynen at 7:03 AM on March 10, 2010

I've been playing piano since I was tiny but never really learned about theory and chord progressions until now that I'm taking a class for it.

Scales- They are probably the easiest in the 3 that you've listed in terms of learning. Get a book or you can find the notes online and practice. Sit down in front of the piano with a metronome, set it at 60, play each scale in eighth notes. Getting these down will be pure muscle memory.

Chords/Chord Progressions- It will really help here if you know proper voice leading. I'd recommend this textbook to learn it. It's slightly pricier than other books that teaches you chords but you will get a much better understanding of the theory behind it all.

If you want to learn how chord progressions sound, this ear trainer will help. It goes through most progressions that you'll ever need to know so you can hear what they sound like.

I'd really hope no one would tell you to play I V vi IV because that's not really how things tend to progress!!!
posted by astapasta24 at 7:05 AM on March 10, 2010

I've found it's more fun to practice playing chord patterns with different base notes. Maybe that's not the right terminology, but I mean that I in F Major is not only F-A-C, but also A-C-F and C-F-A. For me, that makes it a little less tedious practicing the patterns because it can be a bit different every time.

The term is inversion.

Seconding the Aldwell and Schachter textbook rec.
posted by phrontist at 7:10 AM on March 10, 2010

If you want to play the chords without having to calculate each time, it is a matter of muscle memory which, in turn, is a matter of practice. Learn all the stuff people said above, but then keep playing the chords, hopefully while hearing them in context, so that you can associate the sound with the way your hands feel on the keys.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:44 AM on March 10, 2010

When I took music theory in college, the class entailed learning how to do harmony and voice leading. We would get assigned certain melodies with figured bass written under them and were expected to be able to sit down and harmonize to that melody (or one similar to it) using the figured bass in any key, major or minor. This is woodshedding and nothing more. If you do this kind of exercise enough, you can do it without the figured bass.

That exercise made a huge difference in how I saw melody and harmony and while it's been 20 years since I did that routinely, I found that it has fundamentally changed how I read music in that often when I play a melody line from sheet music, part of my brain is mapping it into figures. When I'm bored in the community band, I'll add some choice harmonies above it. This has also come in particularly handy for "can't find the second trumpet part" for simple things I can make it up on the fly.
posted by plinth at 8:00 AM on March 10, 2010

Yep, practise is the key.

The key to practising more, of course, is to practise things you enjoy. So learn tunes you love, it will be fun so you'll do it more, and the rest will fall in place as you go.
posted by greenish at 8:24 AM on March 10, 2010

The Jazz Piano Book is great! It gets pretty in depth, but the beginning is taken at a good pace. Learning voicing with the root in your left hand, and the 3 and 7 in your right makes it easy to outline a chord with the fewest notes possible, which then makes it easier to transition from one chord to another.
posted by markblasco at 8:31 AM on March 10, 2010

IANAP. But when I was in my late teens I spent a summer memorizing by rote all the keys and signatures, the "church modes", the intervals and the major and minor triads and tetrads. It is a much smaller task than it initially appears and it has stood me in good stead ever since. This is a kind of practice you do away from your instrument. It makes the chord number system absolutely transparent. (Feel free to me-mail for more detail...)

And let me reiterate that Levine's Jazz Piano Book is an excellent resource. Don't be intimidated by the price. Buy it because you will use it for years.
posted by Jode at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2010

The nice thing is how the keyboard is laid out. You can see what's a third step away, etc. Hit a key, count up the requisite steps, hit another, then the third. Those distances and the sounds they make will start to solidify.

And yeah, practice so you can do it without looking.
posted by gjc at 5:39 PM on March 10, 2010

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